Notes On The Season: Oscar Race’s Crazy Weekend; ‘Mary’s’ Two Queen Contenders; Indie Spirits Go Really Indie


A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit

“This is absolutely the single worst weekend of the year,” one exasperated publicist told me last night after the AFI Fest closing-night screening of Mary Queen of Scots. What she said was an understatement as the Academy’s annual Governors Awards has become a full-weekend magnet for Oscar campaigning. This year promises to be the most hectic I have ever seen.

As fast as studios have been cancelling red carpets this week due to the fires, it seems they have been adding endless events for the weekend. As most businesses start to wind down in anticipation of Thanksgiving next week, the opposite is true of the business of Oscar, which is taking advantage of having so many “contenders” in town for Sunday’s Gov Awards (a hotbed of campaigning itself since it has a viper’s nest of voters attending). Consultants and PR honchos are maxed out but use the opportunity to get their awards hopefuls out there as much as they possibly can. I guess I am fortunate to have been invited to just about everything, but there is only so much you can get to, especially if your main goal is to see movies, and last time I checked it was the movies that this is all about, right?

In that regard, two of the hottest, mostly unseen December entries are getting their major launch on Saturday, with Westside screenings of Annapurna’s Vice in the afternoon and Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns in the evening on the Fox lot. That little fact is fascinating in itself since this will represent a preview of the future as here you will have a major Disney movie getting a first big blast on the lot of a former rival, 20th Century Fox, that’s about to be swallowed up by the Mouse House.



For both Vice and Poppins there will be Q&As and a reception (in the case of Poppins) with the principal players. Annapurna  has rented out the Bruin Theatre in Westwood all day, first for the Vice unveiling and then Saturday night for a big screening of If Beale Street Could Talk, another December entry that will feature Q&A and reception with director Barry Jenkins and cast in tow. These will compete with “holiday parties” for both Fox Searchlight and Netflix, featuring their stable of filmmakers and 2018 Oscar and Golden Globe hopefuls. Add to all this events for BlacKkKlansman, Boy Erased, Beautiful Boy, First Reformed, The Hate U Give, On the Basis of Sex, The Front Runner, Crazy Rich Asians and on and on and on.

A couple of days ago the phone rang. “Hey, what are you doing Saturday night?” Before nearly hanging up out of frustration, I said: “I’m busy. Everybody’s busy!’ The caller went on to explain since they had the cast of their film in town for the Gov Awards they threw another Q&A together. Of course. As I write this, I just got a new email. “Laura Dern invites you to Roma” on Sunday morning followed by a reception with Alfonso Cuarón and his stars. ‘Tis the season.


Cold War
Amazon Studios

Last weekend Amazon’s guru Bob Berney invited a few people including the Hammonds to a small dinner party at the Berney manor in honor of his Cold War star Joanna Kulig, who he has brought to L.A. for the season so voters and journalists can get to know her and check out her extraordinary performance in Poland’s Foreign Language entry for which Amazon also has hopes for a Best Actress nomination. They are off to a good start since the same day of dinner party the six-months-pregnant star learned she has been nominated for Best Actress at the European Film Awards (and is definitely the front-runner).


This is the same strategy Berney employed when he directed the Oscar campaign for 2007’s La Vie en Rose and plopped Marion Cotillard into L.A. for a solid month so voters could get to know the beautiful young French star and realize she was really just acting as Edith Piaf. It worked. She took the Oscar from the clutches of expected winner Julie Christie, and the rest is history. Kulig, who really sings in Cold War (unlike Cotillard, who lip-synced to Piaf recordings) and considers herself a singer first and actress second, is a real delight. I asked who she had met while here, and the name Steven Spielberg came up immediately. He wanted to meet her since asking to see Cold War shortly after its Cannes success in May. She was excited about that. “Do you think you can play a Puerto Rican?” I asked, explaining that Spielberg is in the midst of casting his first-ever musical, the remake of West Side Story. Kulig laughed, but don’t be surprised if you see her crooning “I Feel Pretty” at any event around town.


As mentioned, I attended the AFI closing night Thursday for the world premiere at TCL Chinese Theatre of Focus Features’ Mary Queen of Scots, which contains a couple of knockout performances from Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I. Both definitely should be contenders, with Robbie in support and Ronan in lead. The latter will be coming into town this weekend — and oh, did I mention Focus has set a couple of screenings and receptions to meet her and Robbie on Saturday? It is heartening to note that 48% of the AFI Fest offerings were directed by women, including the opener, On the Basis Of Sex, and closer Mary Queen of Scots, which was helmed by Josie Rourke a true first-time filmmaker who is a veteran British theater director making her debut foray into movies and doing a bang-up job, if you ask me. She brings this historical period to life 500 years after the fact.

Focus Features

I caught up with her at the Focus Features afterparty at the Chateau Marmont. “This is my first time. I haven’t even made a short film before, and everyone does that,” she laughed. She explained that with mentors like other British theater directors-turned-filmmakers Sam Mendes, Stephen Daldry and Danny Boyle, she soaked up a lot of encouragement before diving in. She seems like a natural as she told me she had been inside the huge Chinese Theatre earlier in the day to check the projection and sound and the experience was a moving one. She never had been in the legendary Hollywood palace before, quite different from the palaces depicted in her movie.


Before the film started, Rourke explained to the crowd that making this film had been a dream of Ronan’s since she was 18 and worked seven years to bring it to the screen, thanks to Rourke agreeing to come on board and give it a shot. It worked. “I thought I was going to be bored to death by this thing, but instead I was mesmerized by it,” one invited Academy member told me at the party. I also got a chance to talk to Max Richter, the film’s composer who did the sweeping score that was just announced Wednesday at the winner of Original Score -Feature Film at the ninth annual Hollywood Music in Media Awards selected by committees of music professionals including members of Motion Picture, Television and Recording academies. It helps to win anything at this point, and Richter was happy. In addition to being one of the industry’s newest go-to music maestros, He just was profiled on CBS Sunday Morning for the unique concerts he does all over the world in which he puts the audience to sleep. No, not because his music sucks, but rather they actually attend these mass sleep-ins, often outdoors, in which his soothing music puts them out for the night. He and his band actually play for eight straight hours before the sun finally comes up and the show ends. The sheet music runs 240 pages. Andy Warhol, who once made a film just showing a guy sleeping for hours on end, would have loved this guy.


Sony Pictures Classics

Oscar is going to be happy to hear that the Independent Spirit Awards, held on Santa Monica beach the day before the Academy Awards, won’t be stealing their thunder this year. The list of nominations released earlier today could be the first in years not to have a single movie in common with Oscar for Best Film, with only Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk even a real possibility (though there always are surprises). The Spirits list is genuinely indie with the likes of Eighth Grade, First Reformed, Leave No Trace, You Were Never Really Here and Beale Street crowding out the studio specialty divisions. Even in acting, only Glenn Close in The Wife is a bet-the-farm-on-it Oscar contender as well (Ethan Hawke, Richard E. Grant, and Regina King are Spirit nominees who could show up at the Dolby too, if things break their way).

This should be music of AMPAS President John Bailey’s ears. A few months ago he told me he was frustrated that the Oscars have become too much like the Indie Spirit Awards and he wanted to change that trend. Here’s your chance. Unless AMPAS voters really surprise us and move away from the presumed top contenders and somehow match the Spirits for what is truly indie this year, there won’t be much overlap. I would say, however, the International Film Spirit nominees such as Roma, The Favourite and Shoplifters, along with docu feature nominee Won’t You Be My Neighbor? are likely to be on Oscar’s shortlist too, but overall the crowd at the beach on February 23rd is likely to look a lot different than the one in Hollywood on February 24th.

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